The Shvetsov ASh 21 radial engine clattered and banged lazily as the Anushka waited at the end of the taxiway. The Captain puffed surreptitiously on a cigarette - holding it down below the level of the cockpit window lest some eagle-eye in the tower saw it. He squinted back towards the tower, just visible through the wings and bracing wires.
"What's the hold up?" he asked.
'Mladshiy' Yuri Koscuico pulled the headset from his head and looked across. "They say we are to hold for 'priority traffic'? What bullshit is that?" replied the youngster.
"My boy," the Captain leaned back. "That bullshit is military bullshit. Some big transport coming in or maybe there's an exercise somewhere. They don't tell us shit about stuff like that."
"So, what do we do?"
"Hold. You want to tell the air force to go fuck themselves, that's your funeral. Just leave me out of it."
"I mean, the engine temperature. We sit here much longer in this heat it's going to cook."
"So, switch off? It's starting to bake in here as well with no airflow around the engine. Switch it off and let's wait."
"Three, seven niner to Korosten tower, permission to switch off," Koscuico called through the mike.
"Tell them fuck," grumbled the Captain. "You don't ask permission for shit like that. They control the field, we the aircraft. We cook the engine, who's going before the discipline board, us or those dumb fucks up there? Switch off the damn thing."
"They said to switch off and hold position."
"Huh!" The Captain said, blowing a cloud of blue smoke out the corner of his mouth.
The Captain leaned back and closed his eyes. Yuri carefully took the lighted cigarette from his fingers and stubbed it out in an old tin can riveted below the cockpit fan. The Captain grunted a thank you. He turned the big switch located at the end of a four group on the central panel and the engine wound down, the prop bouncing against the compression stroke until it stopped.
The silence came as a shock and the Captain opened his eyes. He looked around the field as if getting his bearings. Satisfied he was still where he was before his brief nap, he closed his eyes again. Yuri tried to follow his Captain's example, but he was too restless to nap. He took his headset from his head and placed it on the holder beside him. He unbuckled his belt, got up off the seat, and walked back through the open hatch behind him. On an Antonov An-2 'Anushka' there was no cockpit door.
In the cargo space, the mailbags were stacked neatly in rows and covered with rope netting to hold them down during flight. Yuri tugged gently on the hitches to check, again, they were secure. He looked out through one of the starboard, round, cabin ports for a better view of the tower, about 300 metres away. He could dimly make out a standing figure through the plate glass windows, sloped forwards against sunlight interference. He was scanning the field with binoculars, before turning away to talk to someone, unseen, behind him. 'Perhaps the Captain is right, ' he thought to himself. 'An important aircraft is expected.' They were small fry - a mail run from one small town to another. In the great scheme of the Soviet Union, they were an insignificant cog in a vast machine. If they were to fall out of it, no-one would be aware, or care. He imagined the Anushka still sitting here in a hundred years time, weeds growing over the fuselage and wings and their bare skeletons still strapped into the cockpit seats - still being told to 'hold' by some future shift of airfield control.
"Three seven niner from Tower, come in, please," the speaker crackled, and Yuri hurried back to his seat. The Captain had woken with a start and, irritated, had grabbed the microphone himself.
"Three, seven niner," the Captain snarled. "Yeah, what is it, Tower?"
"Course change. You're to fly 160 South and refuel at Kiev Central. You will be given further instructions."
"Why?" The Captain demanded. "That'll add about 4 maybe 5 hours. We're behind schedule as it is."
"Don't give me that cack, Tower. What's going on?"
"Hey, get off your high horse, three, seven, niner. I just got orders from Kiev Central. You want to argue, take it up with them."
"I just want information," the Captain replied, raising his voice.
"You got it."
"Bullshit! If Stalin was alive today, you wouldn't be handing me that load of bunk. You give me the situation when I demand it, or you'll be sweeping the Moscow streets. That's how it used to work in the old days."
"Well if I knew more, I'd tell you," the Tower replied. "I'm only a fucking Lieutenant. They only tell me what they think I need to know and that's next to nothing at all. Even the Captain of the airfield gets told nothing. Some shit's going down somewhere and we don't know shit about it."
"So, give me a clue? Why are we really holding?"
"Look, 'priority traffic'. That's all I've been told."
"160? We're skirting the Pripyat? Why? What's happening up there?"
"You keep this to yourself, okay?" the Tower replied, conspiratorially. "I think there's some kind of accident - a real big one. They've declared this big exclusion zone all around the area. They don't want any traffic in or out unless it's authorized from the highest level."
"The fucking Kremlin, high. That high."
"Shoot, Lieutenant, we been hit with a nuclear bomb or something?"
"Hey, you think I'd be talking to you? I'd be kissing my ass one last time. That's what I'd be doing."
"Yeah, ok," the Captain sighed. "When we get the go, give us 5 or ten to restart and warm up, okay?"
"Will, do, three, seven, niner. Out."
"So?" Yuri asked the Captain. "What do you make of that?"
"Airplane crash. No doubt about it. Probably a military jet - prototype, test aircraft, something like that? One of the Air Force's new super duper jet fighter's gone down and they don't want anyone to know about it. Stalin would've shot the stupid bastard for crashing like that. In my day, everyone did their jobs - and properly."
"You served, Captain? Air Force. Out East, so I heard?" asked the younger man.
"64th Corps," the Captain told him. "Fighters, MiG-15s."
"So, what are you doing flying mail planes? You should've made General or retired to some cosy dacha in Georgia."
"Yeah, well, some guys have all the luck, do the ass licking. Some of us just did our jobs and came home. Me, I'm happy flying these old Anushkas. Best damn plane ever built. It doesn't just fly, but sails in the wind like a Spanish galleon. You can land it on a fly spot if you want, or in a bog. The Anushka doesn't care what. Cut the engine and have a nap - she'll land herself and park in the hangar. It'll be a shame when these old birds finally retire. I'll retire, too, when that happens. Two old buzzards put out to pasture."
"But, you never wanted to fly anything else?" Yuri asked. "I mean, transports or airliners? I'd jump at the chance to see the world. Moscow to Washington? You don't want to see America?"
"I've been there. In any case, there's an embargo on. Aeroflot doesn't do that route anymore. We have to wait until the politicians stop arguing. I should live that long," he shrugged. The Captain looked around the airfield perimeter, before lighting another cigarette. Drawing deep on it, he blew a long stream of blue smoke. "I tell you," he continued to Yuri. "The best thing you can do is find a nice girl, get married, breed a litter, find a cosy job where you go home every night, and worry about the flower garden. You do this before your hair falls out. Girls go for a good head of hair."
"You never married?"
"Left it too late," he said, sighing. The Captain fidgeted with the band of his wristwatch. "It is a big regret. Nothing else means anything. The richest man in the world is the family man. That is what matters." The Captain puffed on his cigarette - his eyes scanning the middle distance through the cockpit windows. "It's all shit. Everything is all shit without kids, grand kids..."
"You never said why you're flying mail planes instead of airliners? You don't have a rating? I mean, at your age..."
"My age is 60, and that's not old. Y'know why? I don't drink vodka. Mark my words, vodka will kill you." The Captain jabbed a nicotine stained finger at the younger man to emphasize the point. "Besides," he said taking another drag. "I have ratings for everything you can name. Choppers, airliners - I've got tickets for the lot. I choose to fly the Anushka. They will soon be unwanted, like me. When they go, so will I."
The atmosphere in the cockpit became suffocating. The smoke, the Captain's mood, the residual heat from the engine, the inaction, all served to crush in on Yuri. He desperately wanted to lighten the conversation. "Captain?" he said, "what is it like flying a MiG in combat?"
"Ah, the MiG went like a rocket. Climbed, turned like nothing on Earth. They were a good little fighter. The Americans copied it in their F-86. Biggest compliment, to rip off someone's ideas."
"You were in combat?"
"Lots of times. 319th Regiment. Part of the 64th Corps. We lost 9 pilots, but I think we got more of them. We were stationed just across the border in China. We flew missions over the Yalu."
"So, what was it like?"
"At those speeds, you have no time to think. Everything happens very fast. You must develop a fighter's instinct or you're chop-suey. Someone on your six, you roll over and dive for the deck as quick as you can. The F-86 can't follow, see? Unless the guy's a real pro. You get underneath where he can't see you. We learned all this the hard way. All of us, were just learning how to fly a jet fighter, see? At first, the Americans were no better at flying them as us. We were all students even though most of us flew in the great war. That experience was like going from biplanes to space ships in one hop. You must short out your brain. Too much thinking and the enemy's got you. The best pilots do this by instinct."
"You never got shot down?"
"I have the fighter's instinct. Roll over, down to the deck. We all trained for it, but it's not the same when it comes to the real thing. Roll over and dive, and you'll be all right." The Captain stubbed out his cigarette in the tin. "Anything on your six, roll and dive."
"Okay," Yuri nodded slowly.
"Even if it means leaving your leader. They should understand you can't protect your leader's can with a load of cannon shells up your butt. A shadow in your mirror, you have to dive away. You have no time to figure who's on your six. Dive, dive, dive..." A tear appeared in the corner of the Captain's eye. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and reached for another cigarette. "Fuck all difference between a hero and a coward. You do your best, follow your orders, do what you're trained to do, and they treat you like shit. That's the fucking military for you. It's what others say about you afterwards. Big shots, all flying desks, weren't even there. Fuckers who couldn't fly a kite on a string. And, your so-called comrades, huh! Drop you in the shit if it'd get them a promotion and a medal. I could tell you some stories about those brass hats in Frontal Aviation right now? So-called heroes, as shit scared as everyone else, who got where they are by crawling up asses, telling lies about others. It's all fucked."
"So, what happened, Captain?" asked Yuri.
The Captain wiped his eyes again, snatched at his lighted cigarette rolling away on the shelf under the window and threatening to fall onto his leg. He took another drag, before stubbing it out in the can. "It was 51, sometime in August, I think. We were flying operations over the Yalu down to the 38th parallel. A couple of Yaks flew on ahead as bait - we were top cover, maybe 3000 meters above and back about 4, maybe 5 kilometers. The plan was to draw up the Americans, then we'd bounce them from above. We did this lots of times - maybe too often. You do things too many times your enemy figures your tactics. The Americans came up, all right, but in two sections. One section was waiting above us, while the other chased the Yaks. We didn't know they were there - they were in the sun and high. So, we dived down on the first section then these other guys came down on us - screaming down out of the sun vector. We were in our four section, two and two. Each leader had a wingman who flew slightly back and below his leader so he didn't block his view. The leader makes the kill and his wingman guards his ass. That's how it worked. Great war tactics. I was wingman behind Shapalaev. He was a good pilot - very popular among the boys. Pulled all the ladies - handsome guy, good sharpshooter."
"Suddenly, I see a shadow in my mirror. If I had a thought, it was, 'an American on my six'. What are you supposed to do? I shouted to my leader, then rolled away down to the deck. Shapalaev was hit - shot down and killed. They blamed me."
"Why? You only did what you're trained to do?"